Times Staff Writer

Emboldened by President Bush's deeply unpopular proposal to send more troops to Iraq, congressional Democrats are shedding their wariness about tackling the war and embracing positions once primarily held by the party's most liberal fringe.

Less than two weeks after taking power, party leaders who had promised just an increase in oversight hearings on the war are now talking openly about cutting off funds for additional military operations.

Centrist Democrats are lining up beside longtime antiwar liberals, promising to do everything in their power to stop the president's plans to deploy an additional 21,500 troops in Baghdad and Al Anbar province.

And the war's most passionate opponents in the House, whose last meeting before the midterm election was relegated to a basement room, met last week in one of the grandest rooms on Capitol Hill and drew scores of supporters, television cameras and journalists.

"Ours is now the mainstream position," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), who two years ago saw her resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq crushed on the House floor. Today, the congressional Out of Iraq Caucus co-founded by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) has more than 80 members.

Congressional Democrats, suddenly united in their desire to pass resolutions against the escalation, still face challenges in deciding how far to go in what could become a historic showdown between two branches of government over the course of a war. And any move to cut funding may quickly reveal fissures in the Democratic caucus.

The threat to cut off funds for more troops drew a rebuke Saturday from President Bush, who challenged war critics to offer their own plan for Iraq.

"Those who refuse to give this plan a chance to work have an obligation to offer an alternative that has a better chance for success," he said in his weekly radio address. "To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible."

The Democrats' rapid embrace of what were once minority positions capped an extraordinary week on Capitol Hill as Congress stirred after years of standing by a wartime president.

"It was a wild and woolly week," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).

Schiff was one of more than two dozen members of Congress who went to the House floor to condemn the war Thursday. Just one Republican rose to challenge them.

Democrats, who campaigned against the war, seized majorities in the House and Senate last fall largely because of unhappiness with the president's policies.

But when the Democrats returned to Capitol Hill this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other senior party leaders had planned to focus on a purely domestic agenda.

They cautiously avoided talk of cutting funding or other measures to compel Bush to change course in Iraq. As recently as Monday, Pelosi had refused to discuss possible legislation to limit an escalation in Iraq.

But the next day, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), in a speech laced with references to the mistakes of Vietnam, announced his intention to introduce a bill that would require the president to seek congressional approval for any troop increase in Iraq.

Within hours, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would introduce a resolution the following week condemning any White House plans to send additional troops. Pelosi's office quickly announced that House Democrats would do the same.

By the time Bush addressed the nation Wednesday night, congressional Democrats across the ideological spectrum were rallying to oppose the president.

"We have to take a stand.... We have to do everything we can," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Alamo), a centrist Democrat who said she wanted to sign on to the House version of Kennedy's bill, which is sponsored by one of her chamber's most liberal members.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam veteran and longtime military supporter, said Friday that he would use his position as chairman of the House appropriations panel's defense subcommittee to try to block funding for any troop increase in Iraq.

Murtha said he also wanted to force the closure of the controversial military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and put limits on how long military service members could be deployed.

A Pelosi spokesman said the speaker had encouraged Murtha to explore the funding limitations.

The same day, in a mark of how much has changed in Washington, House Republican leaders held a sober meeting to air complaints from their members about the president's plans.

"It was not a typical conference," said Rep. Adam H. Putnam (R-Fla.), choosing his words carefully. Putnam is the No. 3 leader in a caucus that until recently rarely showed public signs of dissent.

By contrast, Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) have urged House Democrats to be aggressive in exploring legislative options for winding down the war, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) said.

Some Democrats remain wary of moving too quickly to try to cut funding, and it was unclear whether they could succeed.

Reid must contend with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has said he will try to block a resolution, forcing Democrats to get 60 votes. The Democratic caucus has 51 members.

Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), a fierce war critic who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said Friday that, because of the complexity of the defense budget, he doubted that Congress would be able to find a way to selectively prohibit spending for a troop buildup.

"I don't know how the hell you do it," Obey said, pointing to the tortuous efforts by Congress two decades ago to limit funding for military operations in Central America.

Bush has signaled that he would not be deterred by congressional opposition. "I made my decision. We're going forward," Bush said in an interview with "60 Minutes" to be broadcast tonight.

But today, the president no longer can count on a Congress of Republicans who are unwavering in their loyalty and Democrats who are cowed by the fear of being labeled weak on defense.

And public support for the president and the war has plummeted. Some polling shows dissatisfaction with Bush's plans has reached 70%.

"The public is so disillusioned," Democratic strategist Mark Mellman said, "that we've gotten to the point where people think the war has actually made us less safe."

And that has made it increasingly safe for Democrats to challenge the White House.

"There definitely is a feeling of liberation," said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a staunch war opponent who was in Congress when it last put limits on an unpopular war more than 30 years ago.

"The question now is not if, but how, we get out of Iraq and when. The whole nature of the debate has changed."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World